No, it’s not. And here’s why.
Portland wasn’t always Portlandia and home of the keeping it weird. Far from it. The Portland I knew growing up here was a blue collar, labor movement leaning small town with a me too attitude toward it’s bigger siblings from the North, Seattle and from the South, San Francisco. We still had that frontier, salt-of-the-earth type spirit in our cultural DNA and were known as generally friendly down-to-earth people who lived in a city nestled in the Pacific Wonderland. With a state economy reliant on the timber industry collapsing because of the wholesale Asian export market, Portland was a dreary place for a dream in the world of 1980’s Reganomics. High unemployment and high interest rates ensured young people would take their leave of Portland and run off to bigger and more reliable green (as in cash) pastures. *See bigger siblings to North and South. As with most economic meltdowns, public discontent grew, especially among working class young people- and then something else, more sinister thrived here for a time.
Whether this neo-nazi element was imported or home grown isn’t important. Portland had a major problem with skin heads, neo-nazi’s and a very vocal right wing anti-gay minority who pelleted our initiative ballots with complete bullshit for many years, with the intention to violate the basic human rights of people living here. Muscle and a strong political movement make for powerfully scary bedfellows in an bad economy of discontent. And the streets of 1980’s Portland were scary. I had my own personal run-in with skinheads on one Friday night out, that involved a high speed car chase. It seems these 5 Portland brownshirts in their pickup truck decided my well dressed friend and I (it was the 80’s after all) were gay and they were going to f**king kill us! Great. Lucky for us they were unarmed. And who cares if we weren’t gay? I’ll never forget how that felt and wonder if these scumbags went on to find other, not-so-lucky people to prey on.
And others were indeed, not so lucky.
People beaten to death on these streets of Portland. National news. Federal hate crime cases. Hard to believe it happened here, isn’t it? But it did. This wasn’t 1960’s Birmingham, Alabama this was Portland, and culturally along with economically we were about to be a ghost town. Aside from the grave social stigma of national headlines, the business impact was devastating for a city wanting to climb out of a major economic decline. Pull down the shades, close the doors, turn out the lights- Portland is now closed for business.
It took time and major leadership to get Portland back on track. Economic leaders, political leaders, community leaders and a whole lot of unsung-hero leaders, that played a part in pulling us back from this cultural chasm of despair. You might think I’m exaggerating a bit, but I’m not. It was really, really bad. And when I reflect on this history of Portland I am so thankful we are where we are now.
And I’ll argue that we thrive right now in 2012 because we aspire to create a culture that questions conformity to the antiquated and bad ideas of our past. Sure, we have problems and a long journey ahead, but the 21st century is really only just beginning. Today I take Pride in Portland. It’s a celebration of who we are without question, persecution or fear.
That is our strength.